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The long decline of online freedom

Sally Wentworth | Nov. 16, 2016
According to Freedom House’s 2016 report, freedom on the internet is in its sixth year of decline. What’s going on?

The internet, for many of us who are fortunate enough to access it on a daily basis, has become an integral part of our lives. Virtually everything we do is tethered to this online platform, and it has transformed many aspects of our economic, social and cultural lives. But while we may take the ease with which we can access and use the internet for granted, a new report from Freedom House highlights the unsettling fact that billions of people around the globe are not so fortunate. 

“Freedom on the Net,” Freedom House’s annual study on internet freedom around the world, sheds light on the fact that in many parts of the world, access to the free and open internet is simply not a reality. While this is due to a number of factors, for many people government-mobilized access restrictions and shutdowns present a significant barrier to the tremendous benefits of the internet. 

The Internet Society is a proud sponsor of this year’s report. As an organization that supports the global development of an open internet free of undue regulation and censorship, it considers the findings of “Freedom on the Net” troubling. In particular, we believe the disruptions in internet access identified by Freedom House have harmful social, free speech, political and even economic consequences. 

Today, more than 3.4 billion people across the globe, roughly 46% of the world's population, have internet access, and its impact is borne out by statistics: Every single day, more than 200 billion emails are sent, 140,000 websites created and 500 million tweets posted. But behind each email, website and tweet are people. Fundamentally, the internet is the platform for creativity and innovation that has resulted in positive economic and social impact. So it will probably come as a surprise to many that, according to Freedom House’s 2016 report, freedom on the internet is in its sixth year of decline. That’s worrisome and prompts the question, What’s going on? 

According to Freedom House, many countries are increasing service restrictions or shutdowns of their networks to block “a growing diversity of topics and online activities.” Of the 65 countries examined in the report, 24 impeded access to their citizens’ social media and communication tools. That’s a nearly 37% increase from 2015. 

And in addition to escalating censorship, the number of countries that have arrested citizens for engaging in online communication deemed menacing to state operations increased 50% since 2013. These “offenses” can be as simple as liking or linking to material, on Facebook or Twitter, that is considered controversial. It’s important to note that this kind of targeting isn’t aimed just at human rights activists; more and more average users find themselves in the cross hairs of government crackdowns on speech. 


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